I am currently reading a book by Charles Swindoll called ‘Paul: a Man of Grit and Grace’, which is about the life of the Apostle Paul. The chapter I just completed focused on suffering and the “thorn in the flesh” God gave Paul to keep him humble.
Though many have speculated, it is unknown what Paul’s thorn was, whether it was physical, mental or emotional. All we know is that it caused him great pain, and he pleaded with the Lord three times to have it removed. We also know that God’s response was ‘No’.
“Each time He said, ‘My Grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness’.” 2 Corinthians 12:9a
At this point, Paul could have responded in many ways. He could have walked away from the Lord in anger. He could have wallowed in his suffering and given up on life. He could have refused to do God’s work until he was healed.
But instead he accepted his thorn.
“So now I am glad to boast about my weakness, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9b-10
I don’t have another response to that, so just, “Wow”.
Paul’s faith and trust in the Lord was so strong that he simply accepted his thorn knowing that in his weakness, God would make him strong. Paul chooses to boast in his weakness so that God may be glorified. He accepts his suffering and trusts God’s promise that His grace is sufficient.
In ‘Paul’, Charles Swindoll writes, “The world needs more followers of Christ who embrace pain and hardship rather than deny it.”
So often people come to Christ and expect that life will suddenly be significantly better. They expect instant happiness, no more pain, and a life without drama. I’ve heard this and witnessed it many times. They think that after they accept Jesus, God will give them everything they need and desire. Then they get so angry and discouraged when that doesn’t happen.
This is why it is so important that those of us who are followers of Christ are open about our struggles. We must be able to show our suffering and reveal our weaknesses. Then we can also show how God uses our times of trial to reveal His grace and strength.
God never promised us a life without suffering. In fact, He promised us the exact opposite. Jesus told us that as His followers, we would face struggle, trial and pain. He was very clear that His way is difficult, but He also promised He would be with us and give us strength, and that our reward in heaven would far outweigh the suffering of this life.
Paul is an inspiring example of true faith and trust God, despite enduring much pain and suffering. Charles Swindoll writes, “The secret to Saul’s contentment was knowing Christ’s strength was perfected in his weakness.”
We all have a thorn in our flesh. For some it is a physical ailment. For others it’s a constant, sinful temptation.
My thorn in the flesh is my mental illness – the depression and anxiety I’ve struggled with since the age of 11.
For many years, my thorn caused me excruciating pain and suffering. I remember nights of sobbing and begging God to take my illness. I remember pleading with Him and offering to do anything to be relieved of the hurt that ravaged me from the inside out. I remember asking what I had done to deserve it, and then promising to be good all my life if He took it from me.
But He never took it from me.
As my suffering and desperation grew, I turned away from God and tried to numb my pain with alcohol, drugs and self-harm. I was drowning in self hatred, anger and hurt, and too many times I came close to ending my life. But in those times, He always saved me, even when I didn’t realize He was.
It was only when I finally turned to Him in my suffering, when I finally laid myself at His feet and asked for His grace that I learned how He could strengthen me in my weakness. In His grace, I found healing. In His strength, I found hope. In His love, I found joy.
And I began to understand Paul’s acceptance and contentment even when God did not remove his thorn.
I discovered that in my weakness, Christ’s strength can be made perfect. I learned that God’s grace in my suffering is sufficient.
He revealed to me how He could use my suffering and use me to bring glory to His name.
God has used my struggles with mental illness to help others. He has used me to help others who also suffer with depression and anxiety. He has given me strength to not only overcome my struggles, but to help others find hope, joy, strength and healing in Him. And that is an incredible gift.
I know that I will always be at risk for my depression and anxiety to attack. I will never be free of my illness as long as I am in this world. But now, with God’s strength and grace, I am prepared for it when it comes.
In fact, just last week, my depression began to surface, so I had to get into “battle” mode and put my fight plan in action. But it’s a battle I cannot win on my own. I am weak and I am broken. But when I turn to Him, He pours His strength into me so I can endure my thorn and battle my demons.
In His grace and strength, my weakness is made strong. With Him, I have nothing to fear, even when my thorn brings me to my knees.
Because of this, I, like Paul, am grateful for my suffering. It has brought me closer to God and allowed me to experience His grace, mercy, power and love.